It Takes Two Generations…

This year I have had a handful of gorgeous beginners taking lessons with me. I’m trialling new material for beginners and I need a cohort of children of different ages, genders, interests and learning styles so I can really test a range of approaches I believe will be more effective than the approaches I’ve used in the past. I haven’t auditioned these new students prior to accepting them into my studio –  inviting a diverse group of children to explore the piano and learn musicianship and performance skills with me gives me my best chance of testing my material (as well as keeping me on my toes!).

Of all the diversities amongst these beginners the greatest is probably this: some children come from families of professional musicians while some come from families where no one has ever learned an instrument.

What does this mean? On the surface it means that I can write “start on F sharp” in a notebook of one student while in the notebook of another I need to draw a keyboard map with an arrow on the starting note. Or, a little bit deeper down, it means that I can assume at-home practice support for some students, while with others I need to assume that the student is the most expert musician in the home (no small difference between the two students!).

On a practical level it means I can get through much less in a 30 minute lesson with a child whose parents don’t know how to help at home than I can with a child whose parents can fluently read notation and who themselves engage in daily practice. It takes a lot of extra time to make sure a six year old will understand a task than it does to give an off-hand instruction in passing to a parent.

Just the other day I was talking with the father of the one of the families who have had no previous experience learning musical instruments. He was telling me about how much better their young child was doing since we had established firm routines both for attending lessons and for practicing at home, and how much more enjoyment the child was getting from the experience now that daily sessions at the piano were taking place. The father said a friend of his had told him “It takes two generations to make a musician – the first generation learns how to learn, and then the second generation has parents who know what it takes to really become a musician.”

The father said he was excited to know he was laying the foundations for the next generation to have the chance to really master an instrument.

Musicians are accustomed to long-term planning, but I was completely awe-struck to think that this family was investing in the grand-children yet to be born –  a couple of decades away from even being thought of, and still some twenty-five or more years away from taking lessons themselves.

As much as I would have liked to have disagreed with his friend, I couldn’t. It definitely takes more time to develop musicianship for the whole family than it does just for the youngest member. It’s not about loving music or knowing a lot about Beethoven or Count Basie. It’s about everything from how to engage in problem-solving, dealing with delayed gratification and the impossibility of perfection, through to knowing the names of the keys of the piano, understanding how the sound is made, how notation represents sound, that the experience of making music through the piano is far more than simply pressing the right keys at the right time, and specific knowledges such as “what is a cadence?” and “how do I use a metronome?”.

If you’re a parent who has no background in playing a musical instrument I’m sure it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of things the piano teacher accidentally takes for granted along the way. Don’t be overly worried about this – the teacher won’t have enough time in each lesson to fill in all the gaps and still keep your child engaged and enthused about their learning, but in time you’ll become an expert, I promise!

Here are the absolute basics that you need to know to be able to support your family’s journey into profound musicianship:

1. You simply cannot miss lessons. Unless you’ve just had a car accident, your child has a communicable disease, or your grandmother’s funeral couldn’t be scheduled any other day. Your child having extra homework that night or wanting a playdate with a best friend simply doesn’t cut it as a reason to consider skipping a lesson.

2. Practice has to happen every day. Even if it’s just for three minutes. The act of commencing practice every day precedes the act of engaging in prolonged practice every day! Get your child into the habit of playing her or his instrument daily and to a certain extent the practice will take care of itself.

3. Practice might not mean playing through a piece from beginning to end. In fact, practice rarely means playing through a piece from beginning to end. The teacher will give your child clear instructions each week as to what is required, and you need to respect these instructions – which means you need to know what they are. Teachers traditionally give written practice notes, but these days some teachers may even make a quick video demonstrating the correct practice approach. Use whatever the teacher gives you as a guide for what will take place that week at home.

4. You need to have books of music at home. The best indicator of a child’s capacity to develop literacy skills lies in whether the home has books, and the same holds true of musical literacy. If you try to insist that the teacher work from one book instead of three you are deliberating limiting your child’s capacity to learn. The price of music keeps changing in today’s internet-distributed book economies, but a rough guide is that you should be budgeting between $A125 and $A200 (that’s Australian dollars) for each child’s annual print music spend. Less than that and you know your child isn’t making particularly good progress! This amount will change from one country to the next, but I’d suggest $US80-150 would be about right for students in the US (music is just cheaper in the US, less to pay for postage/shipping), and about £55-90 in the United Kingdom.

5. Your beginner student child should be learning new music almost every week. If your child isn’t learning new music almost every week (there will be weeks when new music isn’t assigned, but these should only be from time to time, not every second week) it means something isn’t going right with your child’s learning (probably due to issues with practice at home). Talk to the teacher about how you can better support the practice for pieces assigned for a second, third or even fourth week.

6. Writing the names of all the notes in is a total waste of time and will drive the piano teacher completely nuts. Sometimes a piano teacher will write in the name of one or two notes, but writing in the names of all the notes is like asking your child to read a book one letter at a time: it’s boring and it doesn’t even make any sense. Being able to read music at the piano is about seeing the shapes and knowing what that will feel like to perform, and even having a clear sense of what it will sound like (the word for that is audiation – imagining sound). Don’t ‘help’ in ways the teacher hasn’t asked you to – and when you have a brainwave it will almost certainly be a good idea to discuss it with the teacher during the lesson before putting it into action!

7. The lesson time is when you should talk to the teacher, not afterwards. The teacher will either have other students, other appointments, or a really short dinner break at the end of your child’s lesson. It’s not OK to expect the teacher to discuss matters with you outside of the lesson time as a matter of course. Make the odd phone call, feel free to send an enquiring email or text message, but the time directly after your child’s lesson is sacrosanct (and not dedicated to you). It might be the teacher’s only chance to use the bathroom in five hours. :-) Of course, if the teacher wants to talk to you then by all means, chat away, but don’t assume that the teacher has this time available otherwise.

8. Just because you need to remind your child to practice does not mean that they don’t want to practice or that they don’t want to play their instrument. Just as you don’t give your children the option of failing to brush their teeth, bathe, eat or get dressed, so doing practice is not optional, even if that means you remind your child to do it every day for a decade. You are the parent: you make the rules. No one ever reached adulthood and said “I wish my mum had let me stop learning the piano”…

9. Think long-term. In other words, don’t plan to ‘try’ piano for six months to see if it’s a good fit – if you want your child to learn to play the piano you need to be internally committing to at least three years of lessons and practice. Then you can reflect on how things are going. This isn’t about being a tiger parent, it’s about being realistic about what’s involved in gaining musical skills. That 10,000 hour rule? You can have an awful lot of fun during that first 100 hours of piano practice, but you’re still only 1% of the way (if that) toward being amazing.

10. You may not realise how easy it is to play the piano, and at the same time how hard it is. There are very cool things students can easily learn to do at the piano which may give you the impression your child is a genius. Feel free to enjoy this sensation, but don’t be disappointed if the next week your child reverts to just being the cool, fabulous kid that you know and love. Some things that pianists do that appear easy are actually very hard, and some of the impressive things pianists do are ridiculously straight-forward to execute (if your teacher just shows you how).

11. If you want your child to learn to play the piano, then get a piano at home for your child to practice upon. Seems kind of obvious. Sometimes there are great reasons why you end up choosing to buy a digital piano, and these days there are just fantastic digital pianos available. But often parents choose woefully inadequate pretend pianos and think it will be as good: it won’t. If you can’t afford lessons AND a piano then postpone lessons for six months and use the savings to buy a decent instrument (digital or acoustic). Practicing on an inadequate instrument will set your child back by years in the long run – get this sorted as quickly as you possibly can.

12. Grab every chance you get to sit in on your child’s piano lessons. You will be a hundred times more likely to be able to support your child’s practice if you’ve been observing the teacher working with your child throughout the lesson – from how to use the body (shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingertips, proper seating position, etc.) to how to practice each piece to getting to understand the lingo (staccato, arpeggio, inversion, etc.). You have the chance to get your own free tutoring just by sitting in on your child’s lesson!

13. Participate in studio recitals every chance you get. You will be amazed how much your child is motivated by playing at and attending recitals – they get to hear music being performed by more advanced students, and they begin to build programs of pieces they are comfortable performing. And don’t project any nervousness you may feel onto your child – children don’t know they are supposed to feel nervous unless you tell them (or they have an anxiety disorder, which is a completely different matter), and you have an opportunity to develop confident public presentation in your child in this musical setting.

14. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. This one makes me smile, of course, because one assumes you’re reading this on the internet, and believing it. :-) The truth is that your teacher is going to be able to give you much better advice for your child than you will find chatting to random people/teachers on an internet forum or by searching YouTube for tutorials. If you don’t have a background in playing a musical instrument you won’t know what to trust and what is nonsense. Find a reputable teacher who you trust and like, and get educated (along with your child) and develop your capacity for discernment.

15. Share what you know about your child with the teacher. Does your child have a morbid fear of spiders? An allergy to cats? A learning disability or a processing disorder? Don’t wait for the teacher to figure it out by themselves – by sharing what you know about your child you won’t be preventing the teacher from building a positive relationship with your child, you’ll be facilitating immediately great learning experiences. Thing is this: piano teachers are fairly canny – because playing the piano is so holistic a learning activity you might even find that the piano teacher is alerting you to quirks in your child’s learning behaviours that will help you finesse their school-based learning! Piano teachers are often the first to notice problems with vision, dyslexia, problems with proprioception, processing problems, pronounced learning styles (which may be the basis for trouble in the classroom), even synaesthesia, simply because they are spending 30, 45 or even 60 minutes one-on-one with your child, and maybe this is the first chance your child has had for that kind of regular, professional adult attention. You and the teacher are a team working to make your child the best person he or she can be. :-)

Follow these 15 guidelines and you’ll find that you are fast-tracking your family’s musical development! Enjoy the transformation!

Being Musical… Being a Music Teacher…

March was a month of conferences for me, the most recent of which was a conference where I had been asked to speak about (amongst some number of other things) the benefits to music education of utilising the opportunities social media affords.

This did not go well.

I began by talking about the ways in which high school students use music rather expertly without the assistance of teachers, for:

  • identity formation;
  • communication (especially in regard to emotion);
  • making sense of, or organising emotional experience;
  • organising executive function;

and I went on to assert that these four uses of music are more fundamental to human musical experience than are the ‘performance’ / ‘composition’ / ‘analysis’ modes of musical experience dictated by the curriculum; that it is a kind of concert hall-think that permits us to structure music education in the 21st century primarily in regard to such a narrow set of musical experiences (performing, composing, analysing) and to blithely ignore the rest.

In retrospect I think this, long before a mention of facebook (which was poorly received, needless to say), was where I lost most of my audience.

Once upon a time school music education was assessed by theory exams, harmony exercises and essays about music history; it was a triumph of some considerable magnitude when music educators succeeded in prioritising the performance of music in school music marking systems, a triumph that many still feel great pride in having helped to achieve.

So it was completely naive for me to waltz in and start talking about the function of music in the formation of identity or in the organisation of executive function and to fail to attempt to connect the dots from what is still perceived in classroom music education as a recent breakthrough of transformational proportions, let alone to acknowledge the history that was/is within the professional lifetimes of half the members of my audience.

I very much suspect that this first section of my presentation was apprehended as a babbling prologue to the real business of my presentation (talking about social media). This was a terrible pity, because the value social media might have for you and your students will change, vastly, depending on what you think your job as a music educator might be.

Surely we all believe that we are training musicians? And if we all think we are training musicians then surely the main game is teaching students to play musical instruments, no?

Well, no.

Before the instrument comes musical thinking. And musical thinking is exactly what is going on when kids choose one style of music to listen to, and to share with their friends, rather than another style; any act of selecting music to accompany life is an act of musical thinking. In fact, in the 21st century musical thinking is what we use to make it through the day: from choosing a ringtone to understanding the plot cues a soundtrack signals in a film or a piece of TV pseudo-journalism or advertising.

Everyone is musical these days in ways we could not have imagined in the 80s when teachers were fighting for instrumental performance to be included in the curriculum.

And if you, as a music educator, don’t acknowledge how musical the world has become, how underscored our lived experience is, how imbued with musical fragment, rhythmic motif, decontextualised timbres and insistent tone colours our days now are, you have no idea what you are doing.

You know what you were doing, back in the day. Back when intervals were learned with reference to song openings and modes were taught via medieval folk tunes. Back when a backbeat was still quietly considered to lead to promiscuity and chromaticism was widely believed to be to blame for political upheaval.

But in the age of YouTube, GarageBand, SoundCloud, Spotify, facebook shares and twitter retweets, you haven’t got a clue. Not if you think that being musical can be measured by how well someone plays an orchestral instrument. Or how well they write an 8-bar tune.

So…. if everyone is already engaging in musical thinking, what is the music teacher for?, I imagine you’re asking (possibly with a disapproving facial gesture and a bit of an eyeroll).

The music teacher is there to structure experiences that lead to more nuanced musical thinking, more informed musical thinking, more conscious musical thinking, more creative musical thinking. (Feel free to keep adding to this list – it is by no means intended to be comprehensive!). The music teacher is there to help students develop critical thinking skills in relation to their musical experiences; to build a vocabulary for the many experiences that students have no words to describe; to build a fluency in musical reasoning and an understanding of the musical narratives that have built the range of musical experiences the 21st century has to offer.

But we can’t even begin to be that kind of music teacher if we think that music education is about delivering performances, compositions and analyses. These are just not appropriate means of assessing what it is to have a good musical education anymore.

And I wish I’d spent the whole session exploring that. The first mention of facebook brought outbursts and outrage (it’s the end of PRIVACY, don’t you know?!), and there’s no purpose to exploring the opportunities social media brings as long as educators believe that their job is about cultivating and assessing 19th century ways of being musical (performance, composition, analysis).

To be continued…

Pedagogy Saturday and Permission: A Sober MTNA Conference Post

When one chooses (somewhat chaotically) from 5 possible tracks at a conference, criss-crossing from one theme to another specialty, as the spirit moves, throughout the day, it can be difficult to sense a theme or make an assessment as the zeitgeist.

Today I attended sessions from the Artistry, the Disability and the Jazz/Pop tracks, and to my surprise there really was a distinct theme running through the whole of my day: permission.

From Forrest Kinney giving teachers and students permission to improvise without ‘knowledge’ through to Peter Mack giving teachers (and by extension, students) permission to be musical in the way they perform/interpret notation, to Barbara Kreader giving teachers permission to broaden their curriculum beyond classical repertoire and Scott Price giving teachers permission to alter their teaching methods to meet the needs of children with autism – everyone was doing it: giving us permission.

What I liked about this was the sense of being in the middle of a tsunami of professional change: all the presenters were saying “you don’t have to do things the way you’ve always done them”, in so many disparate ways: Deborah Rambo Sinn discussing fingering for small hands, for example, and Kristin Yost demonstrating ideas for recitals with a rhythm section.

But, on the negative side of the ledger, I figure that all this permission-giving reflects a series of lacks in our profession:

  • a lack of confidence in ourselves,
  • a lack of competence at things we intuit are important,
  • a lack of understanding of current educational thinking,
  • a lack of general knowledge about the world, and
  • a lack of critical thinking skills.

Of course, that’s what people come to conferences to address: the lacks they feel they have in their professional praxis. But the presentations were each, in their own way, more about saying “It’s OK to do this” than about anything else: the nuts and bolts were very frequently less important that the over-arching idea that teachers should feel free to do things in ways that make musical sense.

I’ll repeat that: teachers should feel free to do things in ways that make musical sense. And I can’t for the life of me understand why music teachers need to be given permission to do that.

How did music education reach this point – where musical sense has such a low priority that we run conferences to assure ourselves that is, after all, important?

Sober thoughts, indeed, at the end of my 2013 Pedagogy Saturday!

MTNA 2013: About to Begin

It’s Music Teacher Conference time here in Los Angeles.

I’m all checked in to the Disney Hotel here in Anaheim and have just finalised my choices for tomorrow’s marathon Pedagogy Saturday sessions.

There are five tracks this year: Advanced Piano/Teaching Artistry, Collegiate/Young Professional, Jazz/Popular, Recreational Music Making, and Teaching Those With Special Needs, and those attending Pedagogy Saturday can mix and match to their heart’s content.

Which is just as well, because I’ll be attending moments from each of the tracks (with the possible exception of the Collegiate/Young Professional track, for the obvious reason that I’m not a college student; neither, it pains and entertains me to say, am I a young professional).

From surviving and thriving with small hands through to assessing whether/how performers can serve both audiences and composers; from teaching children with autism through to teaching children with dyslexia; from exploring creativity as a teachable skill through to  meeting the needs of a YouTube generation; from incorporating popular music into recital programs through to the challenges of teaching on a cruise ship – there will be plenty to keep me going tomorrow.

I’m fascinated that the MTNA is now offering a certification to teachers as specialists in “Recreational Music Making” – this is a very different kind of piano teaching to the one most piano teachers will have experienced, and I’ll be interested to see how teachers respond to these new initiatives (which are backed by big players in the business end of the business).

The Jazz/Popular track is jam-packed with goodies, and I wonder how much this track will compete with the Recreational Music Making track in attracting crowds to the presentations, and how much it will overlap with the same issues RMM covers.

A full day exploring special needs (and how music teachers can better address them) in the context of individual lessons is tremendously exciting to see. I’ll be interested to see how much of this is about building a framework for understanding as compared to putting forward cutting edge approaches to individualised music/instrumental education for high needs students.

I’m still too much of a stranger to US music education culture not to get a naughty twinkle in my eye at the phrase ‘teaching artistry’ (such a puffy kind of notion, this ‘artistry’ – how about ‘stage-craft’ and ‘musicianship’ and ‘stylistic awareness’ and ‘individuality’?!), but, whatever the name of the track, this is the mainstream end of the day, the nuts and bolts of performance, looked at from one angle or another.

Part of the challenge organising my tomorrow has been that the tracks are all operating on completely individualised timetables: one presentation might finish at 10.20 while another begins at 10.15 – that kind of thing. I will be doing some discreet slipping in and sneaking out throughout the day, wanting to wring every last bit of participation I can from my day.

I won’t be live-blogging! I’ll be too busy trying to get to the Safari Room from the Castle Room and back to the Magic Kingdom Ballroom for that, I fear. But if I get to the end of my Saturday with enough energy left over to write up some thoughts you’ll see them published here, about 24 hours from now. Even if it’s just to say I spent far too much time in the Adventure Room…

Music That Resists An Audience

Since my previous post, reflecting on a simple reason why audiences are so small for new music concerts, I’ve had a wave of comment come my way, either directly on the blog (you can read for yourself) or via twitter or rebloggings or facebook sharings, even emails sent directly to me.

It was fascinating to see the kaleidoscope of angles taken when referring to the piece. To some it was a piece about the fragmentation of audiences in the 21st century; to others it was about what a venue/artist partnership looks like; to others it was a checklist of great ideas for audience building. And the post has been shared by visual artists, choreographers, jazz musicians and pop producers.

Amongst the positive responses are lines like “I’d kiss you. But then people would talk.” (thanks Rebekah!) and “Well written punchy piece by @ElissaMilne delivers knockout blow to new music narcissism then picks it up off the mat.” (thanks Séan). And “What she said”, “Wow. Yes.”, “This.”, “Just read this.”, and “Duh!” and so forth (thanks to all for your endorsements).

But it’s the people who don’t quite agree, or who profoundly disagree whose comments prompt further teasing out of the issues in any debate; in this case, of the issues implicit in any examination of the slender appeal of new music concerts.

The first such issue to get my attention was this idea that some music resists an audience. Music that’s hard to hear. Complicated. The stuff admired for not rewarding a half-listening listener.

The fundamental idea here being that it’s the audiences that new music rejects that makes it the best.

I’m assuming this is what we’re supposed to leap-frog into understanding through this rhetoric: that some music is so muscular it just won’t cozy up with you on the couch, so serious it can’t have a laugh, and so ascetic it eats its gruel in private.

The irony being that music is anthropomorphised for the very purpose of stating its antipathy to people. And the raising of a discursive eyebrow is always in order when for-purposes-other-than-poetry anthropomorphising is in action.

See, it’s not music that resists audience at all. It’s artists.

One of my favourite stories about how music in and of itself is ever-willing to find an audience, if only the artist will allow it, is the story of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Only, it wasn’t called that to start with. It was called 8’37”. But when the composer heard the work he decided to abandon his Cage-like (or possibly Cage-homage) title in favour of something that communicated the human meanings Penderecki experienced on first hearing the work performed. Finally he settled on “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” and dedicated the work to those victims. But the music was not composed for that purpose; the composer found this purpose in the music he had already composed, and then presented his work to his audiences with this narrative and framing attached.

If the artist had wanted his music to resist an audience he would have refused to share his emotional insights and connections with others. But why would you want your music to resist an audience? (ah, that will be the topic of my next post, I believe…)

New art music, notoriously, has its largest audience amongst contemporary dance audiences. Not that the audiences for contemporary dance are massive; but they are gargantuan in comparison to the bedraggled twos and threes who gather in the name of contemporary classical music. The music is fundamental to the aesthetic experience at a contemporary dance event, but the dance frames, explains, illustrates and animates even the most complex compositional experience. And damn it, bodies are involved.

Yep. Bodies.

I know it goes against all classical musicians believe in when they are on stage, but bodies are where it’s at. Bodies tell truths and lies and share stories and reveal secrets.

And new music concerts do their level best to make the bodies disappear. “Just listen”, is the mantra, as if the eye is the doorway to aesthetic damnation, as if the music were only about the experience of the ear. Dame Evelyn Glennie would call you on that.

Performers don’t look at each other (often because they don’t dare look up from the score). The stage is a ramshackle of music stands and extra chairs, abandoned instruments from the last piece and with the instruments for the current piece all set at angles that make it hard for the audience to see what’s going on. Alternatively, the layout is the same as you’d expect for music written in the late 1700s. And if anyone talks it’s either in an unrehearsed mumble or in a haze of faux self-deprecation.

One of the best moments I’ve had as an audience member for a new music concert took place during one of the ISCM World New Music Days concerts held in Sydney in 2010. It’s a concert I loved for so many reasons I blogged about it. It was an Ensemble Offspring concert, and the overworked ensemble were performing an astonishing amount of new music within a week – it was just staggering seeing how much of the performing load they were carrying. This concert featured some of the younger composers selected for the festival, and even when works weren’t completely convincing they really did feel ‘fresh’, which was fabulous.

One of the works really wasn’t resonating with me at all, however, and I was making notes to that effect when the music trailed off; Roland Peelman, the conductor, had dramatically called a halt to proceedings and turned to the audience and apologised with words along the lines of “That was terrible, we’re starting again”, an apology that was met with gasps from the audience and a stentorian “Oh, ROLAND” from Geoffrey Gartner, the group’s cellist. It was funny, and it was honest, and it made the audience sit up and listen to the second play through. And that second play through was a revelation; the same composition, played well, spoke the volumes it had failed to communicate the first time around.

Here’s the thing… The conductor spoke clearly, directly, and almost conspiratorially with the audience: we were part of the success of this work! The performance had gone haywire somewhere along the way and that less-than-well-performed music had begun to resist the audience. The conductor had the courage to identify AND rectify the problem; and the cellist had also communicated a truth of the performance: the work was hard (especially in the context of so many performances, day after day)! And the performers had another gig to get to later that evening! It was context, framing, narrative that cleared the path for that music to be heard well. Nothing to do with quiet or small audiences; everything to do with a desire to connect.

Again, it’s not music that resists an audience; it’s artists who do. Are they shy? Are they unsocialised? Are they high functioning autistics? Are they so focussed on the values of the century that brought us high fidelity that anything that isn’t picked up by the grammaphone needle is considered extraneous? It’s the 20th century equivalent of Brahms saying he’d rather stay home and read the score than go to a (contaminated by humans) concert.

The Bible tells the story of Jonah, sent to Ninevah (reluctantly, and therefore via a whale) to tell its inhabitants to repent. He despises the people, preaches in a cursory manner, and is then disgusted when they all start worshipping his god.

I kind of get the feeling that’s how it would be for some contemporary art music practitioners if they looked up from their music stands and saw the great unwashed taking an interest…

A Simple Reason Why Audiences Are So Small For New Music Concerts

Discussions about the small audiences new music attracts have been a constant of my life as a musician since I first entered university as a 16 year old to study composition.

I have to confess I’m getting a bit sick of the topic, mostly because there’s no mystery to these matters whatsoever, and the whole ‘debate’ ends up in the field of deliberate self-delusion almost as soon as it begins.

Last night someone said to me that audiences are small for ‘this kind of thing’ because, and I quote, “Australia is so backward”.

Something in my head finally broke after all the years, and I found myself struggling to hold back the waves of derision engulfing me. I may not have won that struggle.

I’m not going to waste my breath explaining the multitude of ways in which Australia fails to demonstrate backwardness. And before I don’t do that I’m not going to waste my time deconstructing the idea of backwardness itself. Instead, let’s begin from the beginning.

Of all the possible reasons for a concert to have a microscopic audience the most likely of them all is this one: the music has no fans.

Live concerts (or any live events) are built on a fan-base, so if you have no fans you have a limited chance of attracting an audience. This holds true for a pub band as much as it does for a purveyor of experimental sound art. Any performer needs to build an audience if they want to have an audience.

Now I do appreciate that there has been an aesthetic of writing with no thought for connection with listeners, but seriously people, if you write with no consideration of how you are building your audience you can hardly be surprised when you don’t have one.

And yeah, it’s your audience. It’s not the audience for “new music” or “experimental music” or “art music”. It’s the group of people in your neighbourhood, community, workplace, internet forums, facebook groups and twitterfeed who are interested in what you do. That’s what an audience is: it’s a bunch of people who care about your work so much that they want to participate. By being there. By being close to the action. By giving you money so you’ll keep doing what you do.

For about 8 months in pre-social media days I once programmed cabaret for a new, small but growing-in-prominence Sydney music/art venue. We had some of Australia’s finest musical theatre and cabaret talent on that fabulous, small stage, and the experience got me wised up to some fundamental truths about audiences.

The most important lesson was this: there is no general public. Even when you are an institution with a subscriber base. Even when you are a producer of a Broadway hit musical. Even when you are a decades-old rock band. The audiences you connect with are specific, and have vested interests in participating in your event, even when there are tens of thousands of them.

Some performers would tell me an hour before going on “I haven’t told any of my friends about this – I want to see what the general public looks like” and my heart would sink. “There is no general public,” I would whisper to myself as I pulled out my phone to track down even two or three extra friends prepared to drop everything right then and there to come in and bulk out the “crowd”.

Even with advertisements in the right places at the right times (including feature stories, sometimes, in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro section), the audiences for these uniformly stunning performances were invariably friends, family, colleagues, and their friends, family and colleagues. Walk-ups were rare.

Some of these shows went on to be performed in RSLs around the city/region/state/country. But RSLs have their own audiences, their own loyal fan base, their own communities with vested interests in participating. The performer is the detail. The performer has to persuade the RSL to host the performance, not the audience to attend. And so the performer experiences the delusion that the public at the RSL is ‘general’, when in fact it has been carefully inculcated over many years.

This is what a festival can bring to a performer/composer – a focussed, committed audience that is engaged in participating in the event of the festival primarily, and interested in the performer/composer as a by-product of that primary engagement.

Established venues (such as the Sydney Opera House) have in the past decade or so attempted to build this same kind of audience loyalty and invested-ness.

But the best way for an exponent of new music to ensure there is an audience for their music is to take responsibility themselves, particularly as festivals and venues who work hard at building their audiences will want to see a partnership with an artist as being mutually advantageous. And that means the performer needs to attract an audience. And if the performer can’t attract an audience without the festival/venue, then…. You see the circularity we’re dealing with here.

What can new art music musicians do? Try these seven suggestions for a start:

  1. Stop blaming the people who stay away. If there’s no one in Australia ‘forward’ enough for your music then travel until you find a sympathetic community in which you can thrive.
  2. Start thinking about who you want to connect with from the inception of the creative process. So you’re composing a 90 minute work about sewer pipes – who might find that interesting? Why are you wanting to compose a work about sewer pipes? Why do you think people will be interested for 90 minutes? Answering questions of this ilk will improve your composing. It helps you edit, to synthesise. But it also helps you gear up for connecting with your audience right from the get-go.
  3. Stop thinking that the audience doesn’t matter. If you’re talking to thin air then you’re talking to thin air. If that’s your point, that’s sensational, but no one is hearing your point, so your artistic practice is probably more like a spiritual or psychological praxis. Which is fine. But now you’re not being an artist, you’re just engaging in growth. And no one other than your family and close friends care about that. See what I did there?
  4. Stop being a narcissist. Seriously, you think random strangers care about your personal growth?
  5. Start connecting with people. Whether you have a concert coming up or not. Connect via conversation, shared interests, real life dilemmas. Connect by sharing recipes, local knowledge, book recommendations, travel tips. For one thing, having people in your life who trust you and feel connected to you will be incredibly life-enhancing no matter what, but you’ll also start building an audience who really *are* interested in your discoveries and performances. Because they know you and they trust you.
  6. Use social media. You don’t need an organisation to build a platform for you – get on twitter, set up a facebook page, make a video blog. The gatekeepers of culture are no more. Start finding yourself an audience in the global village.
  7. Know who you are. Easier said than done. And really hard when ethical artistic engagement involves change as much as it does consistency. But the more you know who you are the more clarity you will have in shaping engaging music/performances and in building an audience for your work. And the less you will find yourself taking on projects that go nowhere and have no one listening.

Having something to say is somewhere between unsatisfying and stultifying without having someone who wants to hear it. Stop composing, rehearsing and performing for audiences you could have brought with you in a family vehicle. And start changing your/the world.

The Hal Leonard Australia 40 Piece Challenge 2013: suggestions for getting started

In 2013 Hal Leonard Australia is running a 40 Piece Challenge. And I’m very excited by this news.

The challenge is to teachers primarily – can your students each learn at least 40 new pieces in 2013?!

This challenge is not a random, out-of-the-blue event. There’s a massive back-story to the development of this 40-Piece Challenge, which you can read about here (when I get around to writing it). But the point of the whole exercise is to encourage students to learn, perform and experience far more music than our exam-focussed culture usually allows. And to do so in order for students to develop much better reading skills and much broader musicianship, which will lead our students to be more likely to play the piano for the rest of their lives (no matter what grade exam they make it to before they stop taking piano lessons).

This post isn’t about convincing you that this challenge is a good idea – there are plenty of posts I’ve written that already argue the case, and plenty written by other people as well, for that matter.

What I want to do is give some suggestions for how you can prepare for the 40 Piece Challenge, bearing in mind lessons in Term 1, 2013 are at most 9 weeks away (depending on when you read this!). There are three principles you need to keep in mind when planning repertoire selections for this challenge.

#1: Mix up the degree of difficulty of the pieces you assign.

If your Grade 5 student learned 7 pieces last year when they were a Grade 4 student there is no way in the world that they are capable of learning 40 Grade 5 pieces this year. Assign 1 or 2 Grade 5 pieces at the start of the year, but also assign repertoire that is Grade 3 standard, Grade 2 standard, Grade 1 standard! 40 pieces a year means in practice just over 1 new piece every single teaching week of 2013, and that means students need to be completing a piece every single week. This won’t be possible unless you have an appropriate mix of degrees of difficulty in the repertoire.

#2: Give the student less choice than you usually would.

You are assigning an average of one new piece a week, every week. You just don’t have the luxury of taking all of February to play through the exam lists and come up with a program for the year. A good rule of thumb: the easier the piece the less choice the student has. You are the teacher – you plan out an appropriate course of study for the year. The good news is that when students know they only need a week or two to master a piece they don’t really mind so much if they love, love, love it, or not.

#3: Encourage students to make their own suggestions for repertoire.

This can be a tricky path to follow – students can suggest music that is far too hard, poorly arranged, with limited pedagogical interest! But students will understand that the plan is to succeed in meeting the 40 piece challenge, and this is an opportunity for them to learn a lot about how to select their own repertoire: they will want to master the music within a reasonable time-frame and they will want to share with you their musical inclinations. This also becomes your chance to learn a lot about your students, and you’ll probably get to know music you’ve never heard of before, as well!

In addition to these three principles for selecting repertoire, I suggest there three principles for implementing the challenge once pieces are assigned:

1. Expect a high level of achievement with each piece. Near enough is good enough, but near enough means at tempo and with flow and with communicative intent, not a bald reading-through without any sense of what the music means. So performances need dynamics, articulation, voicing and balance, used of pedal and so forth! If this seems too big an ask you need to be looking at easier material, not at lowering your standards.

2. Start with a slew of material. Let’s stick with our hypothetical Grade 5 student. Week One of 2013, assign two Grade 5 standard pieces (meeting your student’s expectations) but also give a couple of pieces from Grade 1 or Preliminary or even P Plate Piano 3 standard, along with another at Grade 2 or 3 standard. You’ll be assigning another two pieces the next week (probably both at the Grade 1 end of the spectrum), and you need things to be moving right from the start.

3. Explain directly and clearly what your expectations are regarding each piece, particularly in regard to time frames. For a piece of music 4 or more grades below their current exam-standard, tell students they have one week to learn the piece, two weeks if there’s some catastrophe like a house fire. Make it understood that these pieces are not supposed to take a whole term to master, that the whole point is learn these easier pieces as quickly as possible and move on.

And finally: how do you structure your selections? Where on earth do you find 40 pieces for each and every one of your students?!

Suggestion 1: Use the Getting to… books or some other repertoire collection as the staple from which you draw repertoire selections. The Getting to… books have 30 pieces in each (maybe 29 in some cases?), so having one of these volumes a few grades below your student’s current exam-standard will give you a wealth of repertoire choices with only one book purchase. And the New Mix collections are now available up to Grade 3 standard – these collections can be particularly useful for higher grade students who need a break from their ‘serious’ higher grade repertoire!

Suggestion 2: Old exam books also provide many potential options for easily-mastered pieces. (Either your own, that you want to sell second-hand, or to loan, or the student’s own exam books from previous years!)

Suggestion 3: Have your student purchase one or two books by contemporary composers of jazz and popular music influenced compositions. Kerin Bailey, Christopher Norton, Sonny Chua, Mike Cornick, Manfred Schmitz, John Kember, Matyas Seiber, Gerard Hengeveld, Alan Houghton, to name just a few, are composers whose works will appeal to many of your students. Pick collections that are on the easy side for your students. My own Little Peppers books are very easy pieces in this style, particularly if you choose the Very Easy Little Peppers collection!

Suggestion 4: Don’t forget to consider arrangements! There are hundreds of books with arrangements of anything you care to ask for, from orchestral themes through to film music through to Elvis hits through to One Direction through to Glee and back again to jazz standards and folk tunes and musical theatre songs and… well, the list really does go on.

Arrangements can connect with your students in surprising ways because they already feel the music is part of their lives. Your only issue is making sure the arrangements are pianistic. Fortunately, these days there are plenty of great arrangements available, and I’ll be posting more about my recommendations in the weeks ahead.

And at this time of year it would be remiss of me to not mention the plethora of Christmas carol arrangements available at any standard. [See Anita Milne's article in the recent Piano Teacher Magazine, where various collections are recommended for specific grade levels.]

Suggestion 5: Make sure your student understands the cost of books for the year. For many years now (since 2000!) I’ve been recommending that teachers tell families to budget $150 per student per annum for books. In the past three years the price of print music books has generally fallen by at least 25% (in some cases the prices have fallen to half!) as a result of the strong Australian dollar, so I would think that any student could find 40 pieces without even needing to spend $75, but certainly for $150 there will be an abundance of great material to choose from and to take the student forward into 2014!

I know there are a lot of teachers keen to embark on the 40 Piece Challenge, and I hope these principles and suggestions help a little in transitioning your students into a repertoire-rich year!